What would life be like if there were no instruction manuals you could read?

Illiteracy is, sadly, something that can greatly affect people’s lives. According  to The Literacy Trust, less than one per cent of adults in England can be described as completely illiterate and approximately 16 per cent as “functionally illiterate”.

There are various articles on the Web that indicate how people live with their illiteracy:

  • They depend on people (relatives or the kindness of strangers) to read and explain things for them.
  • They recognise places and the location of things based on colours or shapes.
  • They often have to trust people aren’t scamming them.
  • They generally work within more limited boundaries, keeping to a consistent routine.
  • They often memorise how they completed a task last time.

If we produce a product but do not supply user instructions with it, the user has nothing to read, whether they are literate or not. The user has to fall back on coping mechanisms similar to those used by people with illiteracy. They can function, but they would do much better if they had something to read.

Reputation Management – Can user documentation help quash rumours?

Photo of a tiger in the streetIn the ‘Whispers’ episode of BBC Radio Four’s Digital Human programme, Aleks Krotoski explores how rumours spread both online and in the physical world.

As an example, she looked at how two people were able to spread a rumour that a tiger was running loose in London during the 2011 riots.

Aleks claims we are now in a world of misinformation. For organisations, this means they now have to pay attention to any misinformation or rumours about their products and services, an activity that is often called ‘reputation management’.

Seven minutes into the radio show, Nicholas DiFonzo of the Rochester Institute of Technology states groups believe rumours typically because there is a lack of information from official channels, they don’t trust official channels, or because their friends believe it. People use rumours to figure things out.

This means if there is a gap in information, then rumours may fill that gap. For this reason, it’s important organisations publish their Help files or equivalent on the web, so that there isn’t any uncertainty over what your product can and cannot do. If you don’t, whatever Google serves as an alternative source of information will fill in the gap.

Where people might not trust the official marketing content, they are more likely to trust the technical, instructional information. It’s seen as more ‘truthy’.

What do you think?

Please share your thoughts, using the comments box below.

The big questions in technical communication

David Farbey wrote a semi-existentialist post on the challenges for technical communicators yesterday. I’d like to look at the issue in a different way, by looking at the big questions in technical communication today. The answers to these questions (which may be decided by people outside of the profession) are likely to affect the future direction for technical communicators.

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2014′s Top 50 most influential Techcomm experts

Mindtouch has published its latest (2014) list of most influential Techcomm experts, and, once again, Ellis Pratt of Cherryleaf is ranked as the highest ranked technical communications professional outside of the USA.

Little Bird measures  the popularity and frequency of people’s blog posts, tweets and activities on sites like Facebook and YouTube, so this is a list of of influencers across the social web:

MindTouch has been publishing these reports since 2009 by using data generated from Little Bird to amplify success, create new relationships, and spark discussions.

Who influences you, and how do they influence you? Does the social web have any influence on your role as a technical communicator? Please share your thoughts.

Issues for developers moving from on-premises software to Software as a Service.

On Monday, I spoke at the Visma Developer Days conference in Riga, Latvia, about some issues software companies have to address when migrating from developing on-premises software to Software as a Service.

One of the of the biggest changes is that the revenues are spread over the lifetime of customer – they pay on a monthly basis rather than an initial up-front payment. It becomes vital customers don’t give up on using the software after only a short while, because you won’t have earnt much income from that customer. If the software is difficult to use, and if users cannot find the answers to questions when they need them, there’s a good chance they will stop using the software, and stop paying their subscription fees.

We’re seeing a number of software companies changing their approach to providing user assistance (user documentation). More companies are thinking about it at the start of the project, so they can do a better job of delivering user documentation than they’ve done for on-premises software. They’re seeing documentation as part of the customer journey, and part of the design process.

This is welcome news, although it requires development teams to combine product design with information design. I wonder if there’ll be similar trends emerging at the next conference I’ll be attending – MadWorld 2014.

Topic-based authoring: The undiscovered country

NT Live Hamlet Many software companies, when they start out, provide user documentation as downloadable PDFs or as web pages. As they develop more products and versions, and as they expand into countries that use different English spellings, the amount of documents can grow until it becomes hard to keep all of these documents up to date.

It’s at this point that they tend to call a specialist technical writing company (such as Cherryleaf) to see if they can fix the problem for them. We find they’ve usually had a brief look at a Help Authoring tool, such as Flare or RoboHelp, and can see that it would solve a lot of their problems. However, they’re often not really sure how to use these tools in the best way.

Although topic-based authoring has been around for over twenty years, for many people it’s a completely new concept. It is, to quote from either Hamlet or Star Trek VI, an undiscovered country. Our meetings with them often end up focusing on the benefits of topic-based authoring.

Topic-based writing is an approach where you write a piece of text (or topics) that typically contains a paragraph or two about a single topic. These topics can be combined to create a page in a PDF document, and they can be organised in a sequence to create an online Help system ( See topic-based authoring page in Wikipedia). It’s a modular approach to creating content. The main advantage of this approach is the topics are often reusable; you can save time by reusing topics across different documents, and you can publish the same content to different media. For example, you could use a topic in training courseware, in a user guide and in marketing information.

As each topic is usually about a specific subject, and has an identifiable purpose, it can also help the writer write more clearly. If you need longer articles, you can build these up from the topics you’ve created.

It’s easy for professional Technical Authors to forget sometimes that many people have never come across this approach to writing before.

The conversation confusion in technical communication

Flickr CC image by Search Engine PeopleWe noticed last week a few tweets in our Twitter stream about how technical documentation and user assistance will be turning into a conversation.

A dictionary definition of conversation is:

1. The spoken exchange of thoughts, opinions, and feelings; talk.
2. An informal discussion.

 

Informal, verbal, interactive, spontaneous communication is quite different from pretty much all forms of User Assistance you’ll see today, so what do technical communicators mean by “conversation”?

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Getting information from Subject Matter Experts

Flickr photo an interview by illustirInterviews with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are some of the most useful sources for Technical Authors when they are gathering information about a product or procedure. This often involves asking a developer or departmental manager a series of questions focused on the types of questions end users are likely to ask.

Interviewing is one of those dark arts that Technical Authors pick up over time – techniques for getting SMEs to find the time to speak to you and review your drafts, ways to avoid conversations meandering away from what the user will want to know, tools for capturing the interview, and so on.

So what tools should you use?

Coming armed with biscuits (cookies in the USA) is probably the most effective tool! After that, the most useful tool to have is a voice recording device. If you have a smartphone, in effect, you have a digital voice recorder. There are many voice recording apps for both iOS and Android, but the one we like is Recordium.

Recordium

In addition to recording audio, Recordium also enables you annotate the voice recording. You can highlight and tag certain parts of audio recordings (for example: to indicate a new topic or to mark sections that relate to definitions of terms etc), and add attachments to those sections as well. You can use it, in effect, as an audio-orientated note clipping application, similar to Evernote.

Recordium also enables you to vary the playback speed. We’ve found this useful when SMEs are using specialist terminology – you can slow down the recording to check what it was they actually said. Listening at a faster speed is also a useful way of reviewing a recording quickly.

Technical Authors still need to transcribe sections of the interview, so it becomes text. Unfortunately, Text-to-Speech applications still have some way to go. Dragon Dictation is available for Apple devices, and ListNote offers similar functionality for Android. However, even if you are just a two fingered typist, you’re probably better off transcribing the audio yourself.

Are there any other apps you’d recommend? Let us know.